The Sepoys: The Indian Revolt in Reynolds’s Miscellany

By Rebecca Nesvet

The new book G.W.M. Reynolds Reimagined: Studies in Authorship, Radicalism, and Genre, 1830-1870, edited by Jennifer Conary and Mary L. Shannon and just out from Routledge, innovatively illuminates G. W. M. Reynolds’s radical career and exposes some new mysteries. Shannon examines the possible meanings of the 1843 Madras Comic Almanac’s claim to have been ‘prepared by’ Reynolds and the implications of this quixotic attribution for Reynolds studies.i In this blog post, I’m going to look at another of the many intersections between Reynolds and British literature about colonial India. This is the Reynolds’s Miscellany serial The Sepoys, or, Highland Jessie, a Tale of the Present Indian Revolt.

For Victorian Britain, the Indian Rebellion (1857-9) was a ‘monumental psychocultural event’.ii On 10 May 1857, in the military base at Meerut, outside Delhi, ‘sepoys’—indigenous soldiers commanded by British officers —mutinied, sparking a more extensive revolt. That summer, the British public was transfixed by reports of revolutionary violence coming out of India. Reynolds responded with journalism in both Reynolds’s Newspaper and in Reynolds’s Miscellany — and with a fictional serial. Written by James Malcolm Rymer, who is now best known as the creator of Sweeney Todd, The Sepoys, or, Highland Jessie: A Tale of the Present Indian Revolt began serialisation in Reynolds’s Miscellany in February 1858. The Miscellany’s leading serial, its topical content and alarming illustrations were expected to captivate browsers.

Reynolds’s interest in the Rebellion was intense and eclectic. Long before the Rebellion broke out, he critiqued the East India Company. In fact, one of the first editorials to appear in Reynolds’s Political Instructor, titled ‘Colonialism’, is about the Company. ‘Englishmen boast of the extent of their colonial empire, but care very little about the mode in which it is governed’, Reynolds’s Political Instructor proposes. This editorial objects to Britain ‘denying the right of self-government to the colonists’— that is, to British resident in India — and warns that ‘they must be governed to a greater extent by themselves, and cease to be the victims of official incapacity, and the prey of mere political adventurers’.iii After the Rebellion broke out, Reynolds’s Newspaper did not support the rebels’ cause – as did, for instance, the Chartist Ernest Jones – but it vociferously condemned the Rebellion’s causes. In September 1857, Reynolds’s Newspaper called Lord Panmure, the Secretary of War, the leader of a ‘pernicious and patricidal gang’ who has raised ‘Indian vengeance’ like Macbeth’s crimes raised Banquo’s ghost.iv The Rebellion’s image in Reynolds’s Miscellany, the family literary magazine counterpart to Reynolds’s Newspaper, therefore likely shaped how a large cross-section of the British public thought about it.

Despite Reynolds’s Miscellany’s massive cultural significance, The Sepoys is entirely unmentioned in modern scholarship on British ‘Mutiny Fiction’. Surveys of this literature focus on authors such as Charles Dickens, Meadows Taylor, and Flora Annie Steele.v Some critics, writing before the digital revolution, likely could not access The Sepoys, printed as it was only in the ephemeral Reynolds’s Miscellany. For instance, Bhupal Singh, writing in 1934, claims that the earliest nominal ‘Mutiny’ novel is Edward Money’s 1859 The Wife or the Ward: or, a Life’s The twenty-first century continues this neglect, though. Christopher Herbert claims that ‘for a decade or so’, (c.1859-69), British memory of the Rebellion was ‘too lacerating emotionally to allow for fictional treatment’.vii Gautam Chakravarty comes closest to mentioning The Sepoys, observing that the ‘Mutiny’ was covered in ‘juvenile literature… including the “penny dreadful” and boys’ magazines’.viii

Front Cover of Reynolds’s Miscellany (1858) featuring an illustration from The Sepoys. Wikimedia Commons.

Even so, The Sepoys is a fascinating example of Rebellion fiction. It appears informed by Dion Boucicault’s melodrama Jessie Brown, or, the Relief at Lucknow, but it began in the same month, February 1858, that that play opened in New York. Likely trading on Boucicault’s Jessie Brown’s advance fame and maybe a privately circulated script or cast list, The Sepoys features stock characters like Boucicault’s, including a heroine named Jessie, Highlanders, an Irish sidekick, and, as villain, the rebel leader ‘Nana Sahib’, but Rymer departs considerably from Boucicault’s plot in intriguing ways. The apocryphal heroine ‘Highland Jessie’ Campbell finds herself in India because of the Highland Clearances. Her parents were victims of this catastrophe. They died ‘on the bleak mountain side, without a home or a shelter from the storm’, after their ‘home of generations was swept from the face of the land’.ix Her homeless brothers and her fiancé went ‘to the wars’ and she ‘followed’. By giving Jessie this backstory, Rymer identifies injustice close to home as a catalyst of colonial migration. British trauma reproduces itself on a global scale.

Imperialism also produces transcultural encounters that Rymer celebrates. Unusually for ‘Mutiny’ fiction, The Sepoys depicts British-Indian intermarriage positively. Critics have identified Philip Meadows Taylor’s Seeta (1873) as the first ‘Mutiny’ novel to depict an Indian-British marriage, and they note that Seeta’s Indian-British marriage ends tragically. In The Sepoys, however, sometime-rebel, later-loyalist Indian Muslim hero Jeffur Ahib marries heroine Bessie Hope, while a reformed East India Company libertine, Captain Hannibal Hawkins, marries an Indian Muslim woman, Zeelook. Rymer unambiguously champions such marriages. ‘I do love him! I will love him!’, Bessie declares to her sceptical sister, a British officer’s wife. ‘He is not of my creed or of my people, but God will let me love him!’x

The Sepoys does not sustain revolutionary thought for long. Rymer sympathises primarily with the British characters: Jeffur is its one positively-depicted Indian with dramatic agency. Zeelook is largely a nonentity. The serial ends—abruptly, on the eve of the commencement of the Government of India Act. In the final installment, Rymer teases a sequel, which never materialised. However, The Sepoys should matter to us because its eclectic political vision sheds light on the depiction of India in Reynolds’s Miscellany, the limitations of Reynolds’s vaunted sympathy for revolutionaries, and the vexed ways in which radical and popular elements of the Victorian press responded to the Rebellion.

i Mary L. Shannon, “‘A Comic Writer of Some Distinction”: Reimagining G.W.M. Reynolds through the Madras Comic Almanac’, in Reynolds Reimagined: Studies in Authorship, Radicalism, and Genre, 1830-1870, ed. Jennifer Conary and Mary L. Shannon, 101-122 (London: Routledge, 2023), 101.

ii Christopher Herbert, War of No Pity: The Indian Mutiny and Victorian Trauma (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009), 100.

iii ‘Colonies’, Reynolds’s Political Instructor 1.1. (10 November, 1849): 7.

iv ‘The Blush of Panmure’, Reynolds’s Newspaper (13 September 1857): 8.

v Kapila Shuchi, Educating Seeta: The Anglo-Indian Family Romance and the Poetics of Indirect Rule (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2010), Flaminia Niciora, ‘The Crack in the Cornerstone: Victorian Identity Conflicts and the Representation of the Sepoy Mutiny in Metropolitan and Anglo-Indian Novels’, Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 66 (2007), Patrick Brantlinger. Rule of Darkness: British Literature and Imperialism, 1830-1914 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), 199-224, Shailendra Dhari Singh, Novels on the Indian Mutiny (New Delhi: Arnold-Heinemann India, 1973), 35-8.

vi Singh, Bhupal. A Survey of Anglo-Indian Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1934), 256.

vii Herbert, War of No Pity, 273.

viii Gautam Chakravarty, The Indian Mutiny and the British Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 33.

ix ‘Malcolm J. Errym’ (James Malcolm Rymer), The Sepoys, or, Highland Jessie, a Tale of the Present Indian Revolt. Reynolds’s Miscellany 20: 512 (1858), 210.

x The Sepoys 100.

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